The Warriors’ 2016 campaign was a carbon copy of the previous four: a poor start, followed by a rousing mid-season resurgence, and ultimately a disastrous fadeout when a finals spot was there for the taking. A 10th-placed finish cost coach Andrew McFadden his job, with Stephen Kearney to take over the NRL’s great enigma in 2017.
After a 4-7 start – including some embarrassing defeats – the Warriors went unbeaten in regulation time for nine games, winning six (including four against eventual finalists) and losing the other three (including two against top-four opposition) in golden point. Their threadbare defence grew teeth during that period, letting in more than 19 points only once.
The capitulation over the last four rounds. The finals were within reach, but the Warriors produced some of their worst-ever form, crashing 41-22 to Souths, 34-6 to North Queensland, 36-24 to Wests Tigers and 40-18 to Parramatta as their defensive standards went out the window. The fact their three losses to non-finalists came at their Mt Smart ‘fortress’ only exacerbated their fans’ anger.
Sophomore centre Solomone Kata was phenomenally consistent in an erratic team, leading the Warriors with 15 tries and developing into one of the NRL’s best defensive centres to eventually grab a Kiwi Test jumper. Simon Mannering took out the club’s official player of the year gong for the fifth time, captain Ryan Hoffman was superb as the season wore on, David Fusitu’a was spectacular despite a number of positional changes, and Sam Lisone and Albert Vete produced solid second-year campaigns.
Hit by injury and off-field problems, Manu Vatuvei was ineffective when on the field, returning just six tries from 15 games and a meagre average of 112 metres per game, while coming up with his customary handling and defensive lapses. Supposed front-row leader Ben Matulino had the most uninspired year of his career. Issac Luke was largely disappointing in his first year in Auckland. Blake Ayshford was consistently schooled by his opposing centres, and McFadden’s persistence with the journeyman harmed the Warriors’ campaign.
Only Blake Ayshford could stuff up that try 😂 #NRLWarriorsTigers
— Rugby League News (@RugbyLeagueNews) August 28, 2016
Promise in store
Talented utilities Nathaniel Roache and Jazz Tevaga were excellent in 11 rookie-season appearances each, Bunty Afoa must be on the cusp of a permanent first-grade spot in the pack, Ata Hingano shapes as the Warriors’ answer in the halves should Kieran Foran’s move be blocked, and Toafofoa Sipley looks a likely forward prospect as well.
Big hair and a BIG score! Bunty Afoa wins our Player of the Week and there are three new entries to the Dream Team: https://t.co/TPUWCBXNze
— NRLCEO Fantasy Footy (@Fantasy_NRLCEO) July 19, 2016
The Warriors’ 24-14 win over the Titans in Round 22 was one of their finest in years. Blocking out the hype of a huge crowd and Jarryd Hayne’s return, the visitors were magnificent defensively and came up with some huge long-range plays in attack. Unfortunately, it all fell apart after this watershed victory.
Plenty of contenders for this category, but the 12-point loss to the Tigers in Round 25 was probably the most disappointing. In a clash that would have seen them put one foot in the finals door, the Warriors led by six heading into the final 10 minutes but inexplicably conceded three late, soft tries to end their top-eight hopes.
Marquee fullback recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s season-ending knee injury in Round 7 was a devastating blow. Vatuvei played just three games between Round 5 and 17. Luke’s three-game absence in the latter rounds was ill-timed. The luckless Ben Henry was forced into retirement after suffering yet another knee injury in Round 1. Thomas Leuluai missed the first five rounds in his comeback from a knee reconstruction.
The Warriors are usually one of the less-hampered clubs when it comes to off-field incidents, but after a pathetic 42-0 Anzac Day loss to Melbourne, six players – Vatuvei, Matulino, Lisone, Vete, Bodene Thompson and Konrad Hurrell – were disciplined for breaking team protocol, embarking on an ill-advised night on the town in Auckland and turning up late for a meeting the next day. It later emerged five of the group had mixed prescription pills with energy drinks in a scandal that rocked the club.
Let down by his players – who publicly voiced their support of their coach on several occasions – on the field when it mattered most, McFadden was axed after almost three seasons at the helm. But he will stay on at Penrose as an assistant to incoming Stephen Kearney, recognition of the good things the popular ‘Cappy’ has done over the past few years.
The Warriors landed another big fish in Kieran Foran, but the club and its fans remain on tenterhooks with the NRL yet to rubber-stamp his return to the game. Foran is the club’s only addition to date, while Leuluai, Shaun Lane and Jonathan Wright join mid-season departures Hurrell, Jeff Robson and Raymond Faitala-Mariner on their way out of Auckland. Foran’s arrival could see Tui Lolohea depart to one of several interested NRL rivals.
A photo Warriors and Kiwis fans will be happy to see! Kieran Foran back training at Warriors HQ with Manu Vatuvei. pic.twitter.com/SEwymVJOyo
— KiwiLeagueCentral (@KiwiLeague) October 12, 2016
The Warriors would love a genuine front-row leader like Aaron Woods to provide a platform for their star-studded spine and firepower-laden backline. Their pack is lacking size, aggression and variety, and a Woods- or Fifita-like presence would turn them into a real contender.
Foran’s arrival and the coaching change will ensure expectations and scrutiny remain high. Foran will take pressure off oft-maligned talisman Shaun Johnson, while backline stability would be a huge boost after a constantly changing team sheet over the past two seasons. But the biggest improvement needed from a personnel point of view is in the forwards – the Warriors’ pack don’t intimidate anyone anymore. Still, if Kearney can replicate his efforts with the Kiwi Test team, the squad plays anywhere near its potential and their stars stay healthy, they’ll be in the finals mix.
How Kearney will make Warriors stronger: WARRIORS hooker Issac Luke has revealed why new boss Stephen Kearney… https://t.co/uMfiGXum8j
— coffee addict ગુજજુ (@yo_yo_gujju) October 5, 2016
10th – Won 10, Lost 14; For 513 (7th), Against 601 (14th).